Drag performance artist boychild is the genre- and gender-defying cosmic visionary you’ve been perplexed by while perusing i-D or Dazed, looking at a Hood by Air show or turning up at a Mykki Blanco gig. Filmmaker, performer and multimedia artist Wu Tsang is one of the most perceptive and incandescent voices exploring the realms of queer underground culture, activism and cultural identity today. Together as well as apart, they are a magnetic dyad of performance and expression that art beacons such as the MoMa, Tate Modern and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam all have been drawn to and have actively supported.
During an extended stay in Hong Kong, Wu Tsang wrote ‘You Sad Legend’, an ever-evolving performance art piece starring herself as narrator and a paint-slicked boychild reacting through movement. The piece and its characters are based on the work and romantic life of Chinese poet, revolutionary heroine, martyr and feminist icon Qiu Jin(1875-1907). The performance’s live and improvisational sound is in the hands of experimental cellist Patrick Belaga, an accomplished musician – he recorded the score to Gus Van Sant’s film ‘I AM MICHAEL’ and performs with Ry X – as well as a Wilhelmina-signed model. The trio’s piece will be performed for the first time in Belgium on November 19th during queer cine-fest ‘Pink Screens’ at Beursschouwburg in Brussels. You’re going to want to grab a friend and some tickets while you still can because there is something thoroughly impactful and ineradicable about seeing these artists in the flesh. ‘Otherworldly’ almost covers it.
Sitting down with the L.A.-based artists boychild and Wu Tsang right before the Belgian debut of ‘You Sad Legend’, we delved into the language of queerness in history, growing up in a Hollywood world and the importance of art in this so-called ‘post-truth’ political era.
KNOTORYUS: You’ve been performing the eighth iteration of ‘You Sad Legend’ around the world for quite some time now.
BOYCHILD: “This is number nine, right?”
WU TSANG: “This is number nine!” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: So how are you feeling at the moment and what has the reaction been so far?
BOYCHILD: “I’m feeling very excited to be here. We’re in a really great spot with this performance. It feels mature and it feels ripe. It’s like we’re on steady ground so we can kind of experiment in a deeper way.”
WU TSANG: “We’ve also been performing together for the past three years, I can’t even count how many performances we’ve done together and also with Patrick. Our work is improvisational so there’s always a lot of room within any given performance to make it very different. It’s never the same. And I like that. This may be the ninth edition of this particular piece but before that there were many other versions.”
KNOTORYUS: This performance at Beursschouwburg will be your first time in Belgium. Did you have any idea before you started the tour of this work what kind of spaces you wanted to be in and what kind of an audience you had in mind?
WU TSANG: “Actually, this is the ideal environment because this piece works very well in a theatre, I think. It’s also a very intimate piece. I really like performing in the context of queer film festivals because I’m a filmmaker and this performance in particular is very connected to a short film of mine called ‘Duilian’ that boychild and I also both perform in. The film and the performance have this kind of back-and-forth relationship and that’s always been the way we collaborate. It also really makes sense to me to have an audience present with an interest in film and live performance.”
BOYCHILD: “This performance actually began in a different iteration, it was a way for the two of us to communicate. It was always an experiment, or a test, to learn about each other’s individual practices and about our languages through the medium of film – for Wu – and the medium of drag or performance for me. The way that we work is very performative, Wu’s also a performance artist.”
KNOTORYUS: You’re covered in golden paint during the performance, what was the reason for that particular choice?
WU TSANG: “The performance is kind of structured around four seasons. It has an operatic element to it, I guess. It begins in spring and ends in winter. And boychild, in the performances that she does on her own, has always worked with body paint. For this piece it felt very relevant because her character is the poet Qiu Jin and my character is calligrapher Wu Zhiying and the basis of this text is all these poems that they wrote to each other. So it felt very appropriate to use paint in this way where we’re performing their relationship through these different poems. The different paints all kind of contain a symbolic meaning or connection to the season and also the phase of their relationship they’re in.”
KNOTORYUS: When you’re performing, what kind of emotions run through you? Or do you generally block everything out?
BOYCHILD: “It’s more like I’m channelling Wu’s script. I think that Wu and I talk a lot about what the poetry means and we work all of this through with Patrick, our cellist. I think all of us become very open to the work.”
KNOTORYUS: Wu, how did you discover Qiu Jin and what made you want to know more about her?
WU TSANG: “It’s a very personal story actually. My father is from China but I grew up in The States. When I was growing up, I always had a desire to understand my roots, my cultural roots. I went to China in my early twenties and I had a lot of expectations that eventually sort of imploded. It wasn’t what I thought it would be like; I didn’t find what I was looking for. But in the process I became interested in the story of Qiu Jin. She was kind of rumoured to be a lesbian and at the time I was very interested in discovering queer identities, I think for myself personally but also for this idea of queer people having a history that’s always invisible, unspoken or unofficial. And so it was just something that stuck with me over a decade and I basically had this opportunity last year to research Qiu Jin extensively for a film. It was a solid year of this full-time research project and boychild also came with me to China. We went to the small town where Qiu Jin is from. In the film we worked with a group of young martial artists that are based in Shanghai.”
KNOTORYUS: You’ve created several works around this story, including the recent exhibition ‘The Luscious Land of God is Sinking’. How is that exhibition different from ‘You Sad Legend’?
WU TSANG: “When the space and the resources allow it, the project expands into different formats. In L.A. we did an exhibition and the film ‘Duilian’ was installed there but there was also an archive of all our research material including photographs that we took of each other during our travels and different prints, some neon works. We also performed. That’s kind of my ideal scenario, when we have the time and space to sort of have the piece exist in these multiple formats.”
KNOTORYUS: There’s this line from the performance: “Do not succumb to compromise and cowardice, because the revolution has failed our communities. All we can do is brandish our swords and sing karaoke with snot and tears”…
BOYCHILD: “And you’re like, what is that?” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: I love that line but I feel like these days it’s extra fitting; is it just me or do you also sometimes notice your work and its meaning shift before your very eyes?
WU TSANG: “For sure. Obviously Qiu Jin did not write those lines in 1907, but she did write a poem that this is based on. While in Hong Kong, we would also get together with different groups and collectively translate the poems. Not everyone was supposed to be able to read the poetry. Even if you’re a modern person living in China, these poems are written in a traditional and old Chinese style; it’s almost like Shakespeare. Given the nature of the Chinese language, the poems are very dense and full of emotion and you can translate them in many ways. What I was interested in was asking our friends to think about the spirit of the poetry and what Qiu Jin was trying to say. So then it became more about what we actually want to say. And that’s why I think those lines were particularly meaningful to me when they came out of the mistranslation, because indeed it’s very relevant today.”
BOYCHILD: “There’s a way in which language is intrinsically about translation and it’s interesting to think about the symbolism of it all. The idioms or the metaphors of classic Chinese are so different and it’s so interesting to see the way that it’s interpreted through language over time. Mandarin today is not the same. I’ve been thinking a lot about time travel and I think language is a way to do that. History has created so many kinds of avatars so I often think about doing drag and the different ways to perform stories or portray other people. It all goes back to translation and finding meaning for yourself. It’s always a retelling based on your own experience of the world. So these kinds of exercises are really great because many people come together to create new histories from the same information.”
WU TSANG: “I remember when I was an art student, a teacher told us the following in class: “History is that part of the past that the present finds relevant”. And ever since, that line stuck with me because it’s so true. I think we can never really understand history outside of the present. It’s always going to be a reflection of what we want to see.”
BOYCHILD: “It’s all about desire.”
WU TSANG: “And about the power to write history. The histories that we’re taught in school are written and created by a certain desire that a nation has or a people have or a way that we want to remember things. It’s always a distortion.”
And there’s always certain erasure.
WU TSANG: “Yeah, exactly. I think as queer people we’re really accustomed to that erasure. We kind of exist in that erasure and I think there’s also something very beautiful and poetic about that. The politics that I’m interested in right now are about how we can continue to be impossible. How can our existences continue to disrupt the system, not by gaining access to it but actually by refusing it?”
BOYCHILD: “Poetry in movement.” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: I think that’s a very undervoiced, underheard opinion and train of thought, especially here in Belgium. I’m trying to find the right word to describe it.
BOYCHILD: “It may be difficult to express but I’m sitting here with you and I know exactly what you mean. I think the most important part of performance for me is sharing space. There’s just something that will exist between the people in the room forever, and that will never repeat itself even though we’ve done this performance many times.”
KNOTORYUS: What about the connections you share as a group, with Patrick. How would you describe that and how did you meet?
BOYCHILD: “We met in a car, as you do in L.A.” (laughs)
Wu Tsang: “What’s amazing is that we met through friends in a very organic way and as soon as we started playing together, there was a natural connection. It has something to do with exploring ways of expressing ourselves outside of language. I find that boychild and Patrick each kind of internalise language and process it through their instruments, whether it’s movement or the cello. There’s a very natural synchronicity between the way they work together, even thought the mediums are completely different.”
BOYCHILD: “Well, it’s the three of us. I don’t know if you have this here, but it’s like the symbol for recycling we have in the United States, this triangle of arrows.”
WU TSANG: (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Yeah, it’s the same here!
BOYCHILD: “There’s no beginning and there’s no end. There’s just this agreement to commit ourselves to the script. And the script is a conversation. Every single time we rehearse I discuss the script with Wu because she’s the director of the film, the text and the research are her contributions so she has a voice but also has a certain perspective from making a text that’s over 100 years old modern and dynamic. Once we go on stage it becomes this thing where we almost like pass the baton around, it’s definitely a push and pull.
KNOTORYUS: This performance is staged within the Pink Screens festival. Which works of queer-themed film and art have inspired you most throughout your lives and who are your heroes or inspirations?
BOYCHILD: “Beauty and the Beast!”
KNOTORYUS: Is there some subtext in Beauty and the Beast that I’ve been missing? (laughs)
BOYCHILD: “I’m just kidding. Patrick and I were talking about how everything in Europe reminds us of Disneyland because America is so new and so constructed through Hollywood. I grew up in the suburbs of California. Disney, television, mainstream, 15 hours of MTV a day; that’s what I grew up on. And somehow it’s really formed my drag, actually. As I got older it was really all about my friends inspiring me. And now, I’m finally getting into a place where I feel safe enough to go into underground art and dance, or what that was at the time. That’s actually a very new thing for me, I now feel like I have permission to access it.”
WU TSANG: “I’ve always been really inspired by films that connect fiction and reality or that use performance to tell a story. I was really inspired by Charles Atlas and his span of collaborations with Merce Cunningham. Not just their dance films but also the fictional film he created – he called it a docu-fantasy – about Michael Clark that’s called ‘Hail the New Puritan’. It’s about the London club scene in the late 80s and it features this amazing underground scene of real people. Leigh Bowery is in the film, he did the costumes for Michael Clark and his dance crew and they’re all doing ballet to the fall. It’s amazing. I love this kind of clash of genres and aesthetics that’s also tied to a real-life world, a real artistic community. For example, this week we’ve been talking a lot about ‘Tongues Untied’, which is another film that was fundamental to my desire to become a filmmaker. When I saw that film, it changed my life. And it’s interesting how those films come back. They never lose their relevance, they’re like a documentary poem or something. That film really inspired me and so did ‘Born In Flames’.”
BOYCHILD: ‘”Born In Flames’ is so good.”
WU TSANG: “It’s like a science fiction, near-future film that’s set in the 80s about the Women’s Liberation Army. You know, I just love films that are set in reality and are non-professional, no Hollywood actors or anything. Just real-life people who are all playing versions of themselves. That realm of fantasy is about queer people trying to represent the worlds that we experience and that we imagine. Film can be an opportunity to show the worlds that we want to create for ourselves and for each other.”
KNOTORYUS: How do your relatives describe what you do, are they in tune with your work?
BOYCHILD: “Well, my family is the one I chose for myself.”
BOYCHILD: “It’s actually similar to meeting Patrick. Octavia Butler wrote a series about this psychic community of witches. In the books, you discover that these people all have psychic chemistry and they know when they fit with other people or not. That for me feels very much like how I find my people. Often it’s hard for me to make it to a lot of my friends’ performances and vice versa. But we speak a similar language, in a way it’s kind of understood.”
KNOTORYUS: You don’t have to physically be there to ‘be there’ for your friends.
BOYCHILD: “I’d love to, but somehow it very rarely works out. And yet, there are certain people that I feel deeply connected to, even though we don’t spend a lot of time together. I don’t know how people would describe it, as ‘family’ or not.
WU TSANG: “Yeah, I don’t have anything to say on this subject.” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: How do you feel about the current state of drag and the worldwide exposure it’s getting, boychild?
BOYCHILD: “I use the term ‘drag’ very loosely. I’m also thinking about your last question about movies and why I really like Hollywood because to me, it demonstrates how everyone does drag. Nobody actually ‘is’ Superman. Judith Butler brought this concept to us in the 80s: gender is performance. It’s exemplified in Hollywood and it’s kind of amazing to me. It’s also kind of like, tired but fantastic at the same time. Like, I love action films. For me, drag is everything. We all participate in drag. Which maybe means that I’m not into visibility.”
KNOTORYUS: That ties back to a quote I read from you, Wu, where I think you mention you’re not interested in visibility, that you don’t like that word?
WU TSANG: “No, especially not now.”
KNOTORYUS: It has more negatives than positives sometimes, I suppose. As the year is drawing to a close, are there any projects you’re excited for in 2017?
WU TSANG: “We’re working on a film together right now. We’re also doing some other collaborative projects with friends and look forward to performing. I actually think now more than ever it feels very important to be an artist. I know that a lot of people feel depressed and kind of disempowered by the current political situations that are happening everywhere, not just in the United States. There’s this turn towards to nationalism and fascism that’s really upsetting but at the same time I think that’s all the more reason why being an artist is important. We literally have reached a point where we need to reimagine what’s possible. We can’t just rely on neoliberal formulations of rights and recognition and visibility. All these moments when social movements have been sort of co-opted into corporate professional language. That is now officially not working. And we’re not even pretending that it works anymore. This time offers us a lot of possibilities for a radical transformation.
KNOTORYUS: Do you feel even more free?
WU TSANG: “No, I just feel like I have nothing to lose at this point.”
BOYCHILD: “I also feel like there’s something to fight for.